Evolution, Life and Mind: Some Startling Facts
(DRAFT: Liable to change)

Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham.
(Philosopher in a Computer Science department)

Installed: 19 Jun 2012
Last updated: Reformatted 4 Oct 2015
20 Jun 2012, (21 Sep 2015)

This paper is
A PDF version may be added later.

A partial index of discussion notes is in


On Tuesday 12th June 2012 I gave a short talk at this workshop

Overview of workshop themes:

THE INCOMPUTABLE is one of a series of special events, running throughout the Alan Turing Year, celebrating Turing's unique impact on mathematics, computing, computer science, informatics, morphogenesis, philosophy and the wider scientific world.
After the workshop, while reorganising my (still messy) slides and thinking about the issues raised at the workshop about the relationships between physics (including chemistry), evolution, life, mind and computability, I reached the conclusion that the following rather startling (and somewhat complex) thesis is implicitly widely believed to be true, because it is either a consequence of, or presupposed by, many many things that are now taken to be true, including some variant of Darwin's theory of natural selection. Its implications are profound and seem to require a long term, multidisciplinary, research programme linking a wide variety of disciplines, including a version of Computer Science that includes the study of naturally occurring forms of computation. (See the note on "Grand Challenge 7" below.)

A Startling Fact?

The history of our planet demonstrates the following:
Starting merely with a rich enough physical/chemical machine, without any external input apart from solar energy, stellar radiation (especially light), and occasional disruptive physical perturbations (e.g. asteroid impacts), it is possible to produce every feature of both natural and artificial intelligence that has ever been manifested on earth -- and presumably many more, since the processes are continuing; and there are many branches that could have been taken but were not taken, e.g. what might have happened if there had not been highly disruptive asteroid impacts, or if there had been different impacts at different times.

So, a sufficiently large and complex, multi-component, knowledge-free physicochemical machine is capable of producing every sort of intelligence, and every sort of product of intelligence, that has so far turned up on earth, without needing an external teacher or programmer, though it may take a very long time and require a huge amount of parallelism to allow effects of competition and cooperation to play a major role, and also to allow high level requirements to feed back into very low-level designs (e.g. adding neural computation to chemical computation, and also extending chemical computation by selecting more complex forms that serve higher level needs).

Results include Euclid's Elements, the idea of a Universal Turing Machine, proofs of incomputability and undecidability, sonnets, plays, paintings, symphonies, skyscrapers, airliners, bombs, democracies, dictatorships, wars, pandemics, and these notes.

How? Can a Turing machine do all that?

I suspect those claims are true, but it may turn out to be impossible ever to find conclusive proof, or a conclusive refutation.

Could it be refuted? At least the evidence could be challenged, e.g. by providing evidence that some life form from another part of the universe interfered with biological evolution on earth, including feeding in philosophical, mathematical, scientific, and artistic goals and ideas. But that would merely shift the claim to refer to a larger subset of the physical universe.

As far as I know there was no such influence, though something not very different was the influence of optical radiation from planets and stars, presenting changing patterns in the sky that prompted ancient thinkers to try to impose a structure on the observed motions. It is not obvious that Newton would have come up with his mechanical theories and his new mathematics if he and his predecessors had not been faced with the tutorial problem of explaining observed "heavenly" movements.


I first encountered the idea that stars and planets visible at night played a crucial role in the development of human minds, in a presentation Oliver Selfridge gave at the University of Sussex in 1981.

He suggested that gazing at, talking about, and trying to record and understand, the night sky and the ways in which it changed over time, was one of the few activities available to ancient humans in the absence of sunlight.

If that was as important as Selfridge suggested, then we could say that the solar system and visible stars functioned as a sort of tutor for early humans. If there had been no night sky would there ever have been a Newton or an Einstein?

However, for the sky to play that role, the biosphere must already have produced highly sophisticated natural information-processing systems (computers), in humans.

The ideas summarised above are closely related to one of the UKCRC Computing Research Grand challenges: GC7
Grand Challenge 7: Journeys in Non-Classical Computation
The Challenge: to produce a fully mature science of all forms of computation, that unifies the classical and non-classical paradigms

Meta-morphogenesis: steps towards understanding how

A few small steps towards understanding the evolutionary progress summarised above are proposed in the "Meta-morphogenesis" project. See Note added 21 Sep 2015:
Since the above was written the project has grown substantially, including the addition of a nascent theory of evolved construction kits:

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham